A Magical Day At Elephant Nature Park – Chiang Mai, Thailand

We just had a fantastic day! What made it so great? I got to meet some elephants.

For my 45th birthday, Heidi and the kids decided to do something pretty unique. It checks all the boxes for coolness, awe, and fun. We went to the Elephant Nature Park, part of Save Elephant Foundation.

ElephanSave Elephant Foundation

Elephants are big business in Thailand. In every city we’ve been in, so far, we’ve seen “elephant ride” this, and “elephant trek” that. So when Heidi told me we were going to the Elephant Nature Park, that’s naturally what I thought we’d be doing.

During the 45 minute ride to the park, we were talking with some of the staff, fellow travelers, and the kids and I were laughing a lot in the back van. As we were approaching the park, we saw a bunch of elephant trekkers…carrying people. Once in the park, it was unlike anything I had seen before. It’s a huge preserve that has rescued over 400 dogs, 300 cats, water buffalo, and of course, elephants.  We weren’t going for a ride, we were going to hang out with elephants that were just roaming free!

Petch telling us the schedule

Petch telling us the schedule

Our guide, Petch, introduced herself to our small group of 11 and had a couple of tables reserved for us. It was a convenient and dry place to store our belongings. Petch gave us a run-down of the facilities (bathrooms, store, and food), our general schedule for the day. It wasn’t long, and it was time to feed some elephants. Already? Wow, that was fast!

On the perimeter of the building, there’s a fence and markers on the ground. For safety concerns, we’re told to stand behind the red line while feeding the elephants. Several workers bring out big laundry baskets filled with watermelon, bananas, shucked corn, and pumpkins. Petch showed us the proper way to feed the elephants, and then gave us the go ahead.

We had watched the elephants walk up to the fence, and they are big! I’ve seen elephants before, but up close like this, they were huge. Feeding the elephants was pretty awesome, I have to admit. Holding out a piece of watermelon, they just wrap their trunk around the food, and put it in their mouths.

It's a little scary at first

It’s a little scary at first

 

Have some tasty watermelon

Have some tasty watermelon

Their trunks are incredible. You get a real sense of the power of their trunks as you feed them. I would hate to be on the receiving end of a whack from a trunk. As strong as the trunk is, it’s amazing how dextrous it is. The elephants showed great control when manipulating the food.

For the pumpkins (they’re about the size of a large cantaloupe), the feeding technique is a bit different. Instead of just “handing” it to the elephant, you sandwich the trunk and pumpkin between your two hands. This gives the elephant a solid grasp on the pumpkin. It felt weird holding the trunk, but it was COOL!

That is one cool trunk

That is one cool trunk

I thought feeding the elephants from the fence was cool, but then Petch led us down to ground level, and we were able to feed another group of elephants. No fence. The elephants are right next to us!  Awesome!

Hello Ms. Elephant, we're the Wagoners!

Hello Ms. Elephant, we’re the Wagoners!

The elephants are so incredible. They are very calm, and they’re just happy to eat while we’re feeding them and trying to take pictures at the same time. Up close, we got to see features of the elephant that are not normally visible on the television, or at a zoo. The hairs all over their body and on top of their head are very coarse. The skin is really “dense” as it can be an inch thick. They have eyelashes that women would love to have.

Throughout the main lodge area, there are many scratching posts, and the elephants love to come and get a good scratch. It’s pretty funny to watch a group of elephants rubbing their behinds against the posts.  Heidi even watched one elephant break a small branch from the tree, pick it up and scratch her belly (the elephant’s not Heidi’s).

Scratchin' that itch

Scratchin’ that itch

Petch told us we were going to move to another location near the river to feed another group of elephants. The handlers do an amazing job of herding (get it?) the elephants around to the various areas. There is no hitting. Most of the elephants respond to voice commands, and there was no “elephant drama”.  Their philosophy is to treat the elephants with love and expect that in return.

There were some big elephants in this next group. Both tall AND wide, it really hits home how puny we are standing next to them. If they wanted to do some damage, there’s nothing we could do to stop them. Luckily they’re very placid.

I was surprised at how each elephant has its own personality. While we were feeding Mae Keow, she would just drop the pumpkins. Lars asked why she was doing that, and Petch explained that she likes to eat the pumpkins last. She also likes to be fed corn two cobs at a time. I handed one to her, and she kept her trunk out like she was saying, “Keep it coming, Human.”. Once I gave her another corn cob, she would start eating again.

Elephant Nature Park - eating pumpkins

I don’t know how Petch managed to keep everything going so smoothly. She not only kept our group together, but answered all of our questions, and even managed to take pictures for everyone. Whew!

Our guide, Petch and Anya

Our guide, Petch and Anya

After all the feeding of elephants, it was time to tend to the feeding of the humans. Hooray! The staff at Elephant Nature Park put together an excellent buffet of food. There were a few different types of rice, tons of noodle dishes, and plenty of veggie offerings as well. They even had french fries (they were excellent)! Not only that, but plenty of fruit like pineapple and papaya.

Time to eat!

Time to eat!

Once fed, it was time for a nap. Just kidding…I stuffed myself. Now that we were all fed, it was time to see a mini documentary on elephants and the founder of the Save Elephant Foundation (of which the Elephant Nature Park is a part). Sangduen Chailert, or “Lek” as she is known has been instrumental in helping rescue sick or injured elephants. She’s an amazing advocate for the rights and welfare of elephants. If there is ever a case of a single individual being able to affect change on a national and international level, Lek is a prime example.

Elephant Nature Park - Broken hip

Here’s the sad part of the day. After being around elephants, and seeing how social they are, it’s a shame that humans have done so much to damage the ecology and habitat of the elephant. In addition, the vast majority of elephants that are utilized by humans are domesticated in a very brutal fashion.

Watching the documentary about Lek and her elephants

Watching the documentary about Lek and her elephants

It was tough to see that part of the movie, but it’s also important to show the kids the reality of how elephants are treated. Throughout our day, we had been around elephants who had been blinded by their handlers before being rescued. Some of the elephants who had been involved in the logging industry had stepped on land mines and were missing parts of their feet. Another rescued elephant had been hit by a car, and had a really bad limp. It’s that kind of treatment that has led to the endangerment of the Asian Elephant.

After the movie, we’re feeling a bit somber, and Petch told us it was time to bathe the elephants, and that raised our spirits considerably. We grabbed some buckets, and made our way down to the river. The handlers had led the elephants into the water. It was funny, but once they got into the water, the elephants decided it was time to go to the bathroom, and let me tell you that elephant poop makes a big plop!

Get ready to get wet

Get ready to get wet

 

Enjoying the bath?

Enjoying the bath?

Once they were done (it’s rude to interrupt an elephant while they’re making their “business”), it was bathing time! The elephants really liked getting the water thrown on them. Petch was right there telling us, “They like it on the top!”. We all were able to give our elephant a good bath, and then the elephants crossed the river, and started dusting themselves with “fresh” dirt.

Elephant Nature Park - crossing the river

The next part of our adventure was to go up onto the sky deck, and watch a larger group of elephants come over to get fed. This group was special, because it had a baby! You can always tell a rambunctious kid, no matter what the species, and this group’s kid, Dok Mai, was a rascal.

The little guy on the left was very cute

The little guy on the left was very cute

One of the rules was not to touch the baby. Not so much because that we would hurt it, but the mother, Dok Ngern, was still a worried mother. We made our way back down to ground level, and we’re surrounded by these amazing elephants. And the baby was very cute. As we’ve been standing amongst these gentle creatures, it’s apparent we’ve become a bit complacent.

One of the guides tells one of the members of our group to look out. One of the elephants either saw or smelled food, and went to investigate. One our group members had his back turned, and was in between the elephant and the food. You would think as large as they are, that elephants would make a lot of noise when they walk, but they are very quiet. Almost ninja-like. So it was a good reminder to keep our wits about us. Some of the elephants are blind, or nearly so, and they don’t mean to be scary.

Those are some hungry elephants

Those are some hungry elephants

We took a lot more pictures with the elephants and Diana (fellow travel blogger and ENP Volunteer) was able to help me do my ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Refreshing! Up until now, we’d been very close to the main lodge, but Petch gathered us up and told us we were going to walk through some more of the habitat. As we did, we saw many of the groups that we had been feeding all day. We watched as the juvenile elephants played with each other, some of the handlers, and even a few of the dogs.

Elephant Nature Park - play time

We were shown the clinic area where the elephants get treated, and were able to wave to the Vet.

Nice flower!

Nice flower!

There was only one “Oh crap!” moment. We were making our way back to the lodge, and we hear one of the elephants blast their horn. It was loud, and the elephant sounded pissed off. Heidi, the kids and I were bringing up the rear getting into the lodge, and Petch was doing her best to hurry us up. It turns out the upset elephant was a baby wanting MORE food from mamma, and letting everyone know about the situation.

Elephant Nature Park - uh oh

Once in the lodge, we fed some more elephants, and were able to have some tea, rice cakes, and biscuits ourselves. With that, Petch told us it was time to gather our belongings and head back into Chiang Mai. Awwwww!

If I’ve overused the words “awesome”, “cool”, or “amazing”, I apologize. This day was filled with awesome, and I don’t have my thesaurus handy.

I would like to point out some of the Key Players for today’s trip. First off, I’ve got to give a big thumbs up to the elephants themselves. They were breathtaking. Here are the elephants we met.

I would also like to give a shout out to Diana for arranging our stupendous day. She was also helpful in helping me fulfill my ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, and provided us with some great info about local restaurants in our area of Chiang Mai.

Next up is Petch. She was an amazing guide who was able to keep our entire group together, give us lots of information on the elephants, and provide us with an excellent experience.

Anya & Lek

Anya & Lek

Lastly, a major thank you goes to Lek for her desire of protecting elephants, and establishment of the Elephant Nature Park and Save Elephant Foundation. We were fortunate enough to meet her in person, and it’s amazing how one person’s vision can be made into a reality.  Lek is from the hills of Northern Thailand and her grandfather was the tribe shaman.  He was once paid for his healing, with an Elephant.  Because of this, from the age of 5 years old, she began working with and loving elephants.

One final note. If you come to Thailand, you’re probably thinking of riding an elephant, or doing an elephant trek. My advice to you is not to do it. Lek has provided a great environment for people to enjoy elephants in a way that does not harm the elephants, nor further endanger them. What better than to spend the entire day feeding, bathing and walking right with the elephants.  If you do choose to ride them, please check out the establishment and see how the treat the elephants. As a consumer, I urge you to vote with your wallet.

There are many ways you can donate money or volunteer your time. These donations will help continue the great work that the Save Elephant Foundation is doing.  You can spend your time living with the elephants and volunteer for 1 week or longer.

Elephant_Nature_Park

Booking Information

There are several Options for  Visits, we selected the single day option.

  • A single day visit (feeding and bathing)
    Start:08:00 / 08:30 am. Pick up from your city hotel / accommodation.
    Return:Approximately 17:00 / 30 to Chiang Mai city.
    Bring:Hat, Sunscreen, Sandals/Flip Flops, Change of clothing for river bathing, towel, Shoes for walking, Camera, Bug Repellent.
    Open:All Year Round.
    Age:Appropriate for all ages from infants to retirees.
  • A full day visit is approximately (walking the elephants in the mountains)
  • Over night visit – two days one night
  • Weekly and more

Donations – We donated!

If you decide to donate, please let us know in the comments below or in an email.  We would want to thank you personally.

  • Donate for Elephant Care – Providing the elephants a healthy diet and veterinary care, goes a long way in keeping the elephants happy.
  • Donate for Land Purchase – Your donations can go towards Land Purchase to help protect the land from future development.  They are now at maximum capacity for 200 acres with 39 rescued elephants.
  • For donors in the U.S.you  may make tax-deductible donations to our partner, The Serengeti Foundation, a 501(c)(3) charity.
  • Donate you time by Volunteering – You can give your time, and help with all of the duties that goes into running the park:

When you are in the Chiang Mai area, this really is one of the “must do” experiences.

We have several videos we will be sharing with you as well as our homeschool activities with the kids, so be on the look out!

Feel free to also check out our Family Friendly Guide to Chiang Mai

Family Friendly Chiang Mai Guide

Disclosure: ENP was kind enough to sponsor our visit.  All opinions are our own.  We were so pleased with the experience and completely support the Save Elephant Foundation, we have even donated to the cause.

This entry was posted in Chiang Mai, Experiences, Thailand and tagged , , , , , by Alan Wagoner. Bookmark the permalink.

About Alan Wagoner

Alan digs on technology and travel and is definitely the comic in the family. He's traveled all over the globe in search of cultural experiences. He has a fantastic wife and two great children that put up with his "humor", and luckily they all love travel as well. In Aug 2012, they sold their house and all of their possessions and moved to Spain to soak up the culture. He has written a book titled Live In Spain to help those wanting to obtain a Spanish Resident Visa. He also loves to write about the funnier side of the family's adventures.

23 thoughts on “A Magical Day At Elephant Nature Park – Chiang Mai, Thailand

  1. So glad you got to do that! And that last photos with Lek is priceless. We spent a week there volunteering last November and each moment was so magical. (Yes, even the part where we were cleaning stables.) It is a such a magnificent and peaceful place. I am so glad that those eles were able to find Lek.

    And folks like you who tell their story.

  2. I really enjoyed my day at Elephant Nature Park, too. This has to be one of my top experiences in my lifetime. Our group saw the movie at the end of the visit, so I think the way you got to see it midday with time for more uplifting moments afterward would have been better.

  3. I love elephants, their smell always gets me, and looking into their eyes. Wonderful creatures. Personally I love the mahout/elephant relationship and I’ve read many books on it, try Mark Shand’s books, Travels on My Elephant and Tara Queen of the Elephants. It’s tiger abuse that gets to me!

  4. I went there twice. The first for a day tour with Nomadic Matt and the second I spent a week volunteering with the dogs. Two totally different experiences. I highly recommend it to anyone who plans on going to Thailand.

  5. Happy Birthday and I’m so glad you spent it at the ENP! I went there last summer and absolutely loved it, so much so that I went back to volunteer with the dogs for a week; one of my best travel experiences. I think it’s so important to spread the word about ENP, if more people knew about the issues I’m sure they’d chose to visit the ENP rather than ride an elephant.

    • Thanks for the birthday wishes Amy. The visit to ENP definitely ranks in the Top 5 Travel Experiences for us. I really do hope that people take the message to heart. It’s much more rewarding to see the elephants up close in a human environment. Thanks for commenting!

  6. Great write-up. Thanks for sharing. I have to say, though, I’m conflicted about one particular issue with the visits to ENP and it’s that these elephants, who have always been on display for humans, don’t have the peace they deserve to just /be/ elephants and do whatever they want. They are on display and part of entertaining visitors, and while they do get treated humanely, they’re still…cash cows? I’ve thought often of visiting ENP but, at the same time, I’d just like to see them do their thing while I’d observe from a respectful distance – if they so choose. Feeding, bathing, touching, petting, and photographing seems…wrong.

    • Thanks for the comments Bella. Understand your point about leaving them alone, and for the elephants in the wild, I totally agree. Most of the elephants at ENP are rescued. They were most likely domesticated in an inhumane way, and treated poorly during their working lives, and now they are being cared for at ENP. The folks at ENP are taking those injured (both physically and mentally) elephants, and treating them very well.

      Not only that, but individuals like Lek are doing an excellent job of bringing global awareness to the treatment of the Asian elephants, so I feel comfortable sharing her continuing work with elephants to our readers.

  7. Hi guys

    My wife did this exact trip while we were living in Chiang Mai recently, and had the time of her life. They do a fantastic job of rescuing elephants that have been treated badly and giving them a safe and comfortable environment to live their lives. Well done on writing about it and informing others of the great work they do!

    • Thanks Chris. Isn’t it the best? You should see where we are today, Amazing. We are about an hour south of Chiang Mai and staying a couple of nights at Chai Lai Orchid. They are an organization helping the local hill tribe women with jobs, education and ecotourism. Wonderful place and elephants all around.

  8. Incredible. To be so close – and I love the visual of the elephants using the scratching post. With so many places that take advantage of animals – it is great to hear about the good work that is being done.

  9. This looks like it would be a wonderful day with the kids. I’ll have to bookmark a visit to Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai for when we’re in Thailand next!

Come on and tell us what you think!